Or, Three Lessons Gleaned from “At The Bench: A Laboratory Navigator"
by Joe Morrison
My offer letter from Biomeme came with a qualification that read, “we’re not exactly sure what you’ll be doing, but we’re positive that you’ve never done it before.” They explained that I might be working in the lab for a few months as they worked on building out various projects.
That would have been dandy except for one minor detail: in four years of college, I only managed to complete one lab course with a title something like “Biology for Students Who are Disappointments to their Parents.”* Instead of advancing human knowledge in a scientific field, I majored in Religion. So it’s only natural that my first job out of college is with a biomedical startup.**
To ease my transition into this brave new world, Jesse vanWestrienen, (Co-founder and Biology Lead at Biomeme), gave me a present: Kathy Barker’s opus magnum, “At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator.” This textbook is so phenomenally dense with wisdom, not just about laboratory etiquette but also about life in general, as to warrant a cult following.***
Below is an assorted list of Barkerisms that rival Confucius in their scope and wisdom. They are intended for fledgling lab workers but apply more general to startups and, I contend, everything ever. While this advice is mostly obvious to anyone who is a decent human being, it’s still worth reiterating. No, this is not a Russian proverb; it’s in The Book.
Given my unlikely path to Biomeme, this quotation resonates with me for obvious reasons. Too many hiring managers interpret academic and professional pedigree as shorthand for inherent value—I’m not discounting GPA, standardized testing, earned income, or a direct bloodline to the crown as useful indicators of competence, but it shouldn’t stand in for aptitude. As The Great One (Kathy Barker) once elaborated, “You may have been able to pH in your sleep with the pH meter in your old lab, but you don’t know whether this lab prefers to keep the electrode in buffer or water, whether people take turns making the acids and bases used for pH-ing, where the stir bars go when you are finished, [etc.].” Regardless of experience, everyone requires training, and intellectual curiosity trumps experience every time.
Similarly, a healthy company culture is one that values cross-perspectives, even for seemingly esoteric or technical obstacles. If your engineers aren’t hanging out with your sales guys, and your CEO isn’t mingling with the office manager… Kathy Barker would not be pleased, and you don’t want that. Trust me. I’m running with this one metaphorically, but you can bet your graduated cylinder collection that this kernel of wisdom was originally meant literally (albeit with tongue firmly in cheek).
Kathy Barker is quick to note that the dress code at labs tends to be informal. After all, you shouldn’t wear nice clothes at the bench “unless you want to spill phenol or bleach on them,” which would just be silly. Dress codes at startups tend towards the casual as well, for better or worse. In some offices, casual dress codes promote egalitarianism and institutional humility, while in other companies they promote arrogance and condescension. It mostly depends on whether management has their ties in the proverbial Bunson burner. In other words, if management loses sight of the assets right under their nose, trouble will brew.
I think Kathy Barker would agree that if the Principal Investigator of the lab treats the lowliest of laboratory aides with the same respect as the editor of Nature, everyone’s standard of conduct will be better for it. There are two professions that perfect the American ideal of rugged individualism: assassins for hire and researchers. Both groups value method, efficiency, and replicable results. Both are notorious for going weeks without bathing in pursuit of their craft. There are few differences between these two professions excepting one essential dissimilarity: the best assassins do not mingle with one another and always work in absolute isolation while the best researchers always make an effort to help their fellow lab mates with the mundane tasks inherent to their common fields of research. Similarly, as startups grow, roles become more clearly delineated, and the organizational necessity of specialization predominates. The key is to remember Kathy Barker’s immortal words and to mollify your coworkers by taking the initiative to make their lives easier when you can.
You may have noticed that the title of this post seems like a cheap and mostly irrelevant hook to get you to read this blog. I disagree, and if you really feel that way, you should be ashamed. The same principles that make for great laboratory (and startup) co-working make for healthy relationships generally. Open-mindedness, informality, honesty, respect, and a freshly laundered lab coat are the necessary ingredients for mutually edifying intimacy. The analogy is addressed directly in the Teachings of Barker™ when she notes that your lab partner is the “observer of all your experimental and emotional ups and downs and thus, the laboratory equivalent of a spouse.” ****
The evidence is clear: Kathy Barker speaks Truth with a capital “T”. Being new to the lab, I’m looking forward to mixing buffers for my coworkers and volunteering to take the hazardous material out to the dumpster behind the office. Because, it’s the right thing to do. And because Kathy Barker.*****
*The fetal pig I dissected in that class had no kidneys and its thyroid gland was inexplicably swollen to the size of a baseball. The professor said that she’d never seen anything like it in 20 years of teaching the course. I’m not particularly superstitious, but there was something ominous about the whole experience that I still can’t get over.
**My epic poem, “Conventional Wisdom Can Kiss My (Employed) Ass” remains unpublished.
***As a religion major, I must point out that I am using “cult” colloquially. However, if there are interested parties reading this blog and thinking about taking the plunge with me, I would be glad to take the cult of Kathy Barker to the next level. Also, while I may seem bitingly sarcastic to the untrained eye, I have an immense respect for this book and if you’re even considering bench work at some point down the road, it is an essential primer.
****I prefer my own egregious paraphrasing, “Your ‘significant other’ is the observer of all your professional and emotional ups and downs and thus, the spousal equivalent of a laboratory coworker.”
*****Kathy Barker, if you’re out there, you can reach me at joe[at]biomeme[dot]com. On a serious note, your book is amazing and approachable even for a goofus like me.